The cautionary tale of Jason Peter
After reading an advance copy of former NFL first-round pick Jason Peter's riveting memoir about his grotesquely self-destructive life in football and as a drug addict so out of control that he used to take 80 pain and sleeping pills in a day -- 80! -- I called him Sunday and didn't know quite how to begin the interview. So I just said it.
"I'm shocked you're still alive."
"I am too,'' he said.
The first page of Peter's Hero of the Underground (with Tony O'Neill, St. Martin's Press, due out July 8) took me to the top of a roller coaster and dropped me straight down. In part, it reads:
When you swallow eighty Vicodin, twenty sleeping pills, drink a bottle of vodka, and still survive, a certain sense of invulnerability stays with you. When you continually use drugs with the kind of reckless determination that I did, the limit to how much heroin or crack you can ingest is not defined in dollar amounts but in the amounts your body can withstand without experiencing a seizure or respiratory failure ... when you still wake up to see the same dirty sky over you as the night before, you start to think that instead of dying, maybe your punishment is to live -- to be stuck in this purgatory of self-abuse and misery for an eternity.
Vicodin. Ambien. Cocaine. Crack. Heroin. GHB, the date-rape drug. Lots of others I've never heard of. He's not sure if he's been in rehab six or seven times. He's blown most of the $6.5 million Carolina paid him over a disappointing, injury-filled NFL career with the Panthers. Nights and weeks with prostitutes so numerous ... well, so numerous that his Madame at a high-rolling Manhattan brothel ran out of girls for him.
How did it all happen, this trail that led to one suicide try and thoughts of a second, when he'd use a gun instead of the drugs his body had built up such a tolerance to?
The condensed version: Peter grew up in Middletown, N.J., one of four children of a noted central Jersey restaurateur. He never played football until his junior year in high school, yet he was good enough and big enough (6-foot-5, 275 pounds) after a year of prep school to earn a full ride where his brother Christian was starring -- Nebraska. He played well enough there to be the 14th pick in the 1998 draft, by Carolina. But he could never stay healthy for the Panthers, and seven shoulder and neck surgeries later, he was cut in 2001 ... for his own good.
This is more than a book about a druggie who had a failed pro football career. It's a good look into the sordid world of how a pro football player survives when he feels pain every day of his life. And Peter doesn't blame Nebraska, the Panthers, the NFL or his family.
"I didn't want to put the blame on anyone for my drug use -- anyone but me,'' he said. "I've got great parents. I had all the advantages any kid would want growing up. I take all the blame for everything. There are guys who come out of the surgeries I had and they don't get addicted.''
One quick note: In "A Note to the Reader'' before Chapter 1, Peter writes, "This is my true story. However, some names and details have been changed.'' He explained to me that St. Martin's originally wanted a tell-all book, with names, about life in the NFL. Peter said he was willing to indict himself, but not his friends and any teammates that might be involved in his debauchery. I told him that sentence would leave it open for people to wonder how much of the stories in the book were true. "This book was about my experiences, and if I thought it might be negative to anyone else, I changed their name. But the stories are true.''
The best football story was the day in 2001 he was told by Carolina coach George Seifert he would no longer be cleared to play football for the Panthers. Called into the trainer's office with GM Marty Hurney and the team trainer, Peter wrote:
I knew what this was. This was the Death Blow. I approached the office slowly and silently. I felt like a man stepping up to the gas chamber. I closed the door behind me and was ushered into a chair. Everyone sat in silence. I took in the office, the polished mahogany desk, the pictures of the trainer's family ... [Hurney and Seifert] were men who knew and loved sports. They knew what they were about to say to me was one of the cruelest things you could say to an athlete. I had the sudden, confusing urge to laugh, or to get up and run out of the office, pretend that this wasn't happening. But, crushed by circumstance, I just sat there and did my best to smile.
"You know, [Seifert said] ... I've coached men who have damaged themselves so badly playing this game ... that they can't even hold their children anymore. They pushed it too far, and once your body reaches a certain point ... well, there's just no coming back. Do you understand what I'm telling you, Jason?''
"Jason, you can't keep doing this ... The bottom line is this: We can't clear you to play anymore. The doctor has told us that you're at risk for a major injury. I'm really terribly sorry.''
"Yes, sir.'' ...
I knew what they were saying was perfectly true. I could feel it, deep inside of myself. I was one good hit away from being a cripple, and that scared the living s--- out of me. This little talk in the office was just the final confirmation of something I had known for a long time. It was game over. I was finished.
And when it was over, the pain didn't stop. But the meaning of his life did. As Peter told me Sunday, "We had a guy who used to play for the Steelers, Donnie Shell, who worked for the Panthers helping guys with life after football. He'd say to me, 'Let's work on your career after football.' I thought, Are you kidding me? My life is football. I'm 25 years old, making more money than I ever dreamed of. I don't need help. I'm playing 12, 13 years.''
He had nothing to do. But he had ways of passing the time, writing that he found it easy at first to score painkilling pills like Vicodin. He was still suffering, so it was logical for the team to give him medication. When that wasn't enough, he'd meet friendly doctors, some in his adopted hometown of Manhattan, more than happy to write him a prescription for a favor like an autographed jersey. But it got to the point, he told me, "where it was easier to buy five eight-balls of cocaine than it was to buy 500 Vicodin.'' That's what led to the rampant drug use. Rampant is putting it mildly.
I had two questions: How did he evade the NFL's drug policy while he was an occasional user of painkillers and recreational drugs with the Panthers? He didn't. He got a DWI in his rookie year, and was put into the NFL's substance-abuse program. But what he was using -- Vicodin and other substances that wouldn't show up dirty in a drug test -- made it possible for him to get away with using. And how prevalent did he think painkiller-abuse was in the NFL? "I would have to think there are some guys who walk away from the game with some kind of addiction,'' he said. "How many, I don't know.''
The bottom line, as he said, is that the NFL gives you chances to stop, by not suspending players on a first offense, but rather putting them into a drug program. "I don't think the risk of getting caught is serious enough,'' he said. "Now, if you put in a four-year suspension like they have in track for a guy like Justin Gatlin [who got four years for a second doping violation], that would get guys' attention. But with all the money there is in the NFL, guys are going to do what they have to do to get an edge.''
This book will suck in readers, in and out of the football world, because of the graphic nature of Peter's stories. And it will be a cautionary tale for someone. I don't know if it'll be a football player or a stockbroker or a realtor or a CEO. Just someone with lots of money.
"I hope it helps somebody,'' said Peter, who claims he is four years clean. He's married, living in Lincoln, Neb., working as a radio host and living on six acres with a wife, Sarah, he met after leaving his last -- successful -- rehab stint in California. The amazing thing is, he lived to tell the story.